Pop: South by Southwest '97 Austin, Texas

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Forget New York and LA, the laid-back Texan city of Austin is the live music capital of the USA, and each March it goes into aural overdrive with the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival - the biggest music industry gathering in the country. The 11th SXSW held last week brought a circus of around 6,000 industry movers and journalists to the city to see some 800 acts playing at over 40 different venues.

Covering everything from tejano and two-step to trash rock techno, SXSW '97 mixed unsigned bands hoping for a deal, scores of up-and-coming acts with a CD to plug and veterans like Tony Bennett and Carl Perkins trying to shift some back catalogue. The names involved aren't as well known as, say, a Reading Festival bill, but listeners to the Andy Kershaw and Evening Session radio shows would have been faced with chronic timetabling problems trying to see all the roots Americana and indie rock acts playing throughout the day until 2am.

Now that America's radio stations and major labels have realized that they have flogged grunge to death, two musical formats were the talk of the town. One of the tipped contenders is what we call dance music - they term it electronica. Early on Thursday night at the horrible collegiate bar Bob Poplar's, Prodigy labelmates and fellow Essex boys Empirion got a solid reaction for a rocking set and by the time Oxford's surreal fusion geniuses The Egg came on after midnight, the "full house" sign was up. Despite a poor PA and inadequate facilities for their quirky light show, The Egg kept the place packed to the end of their continuous set.

The marvellously eclectic Londoners, Spring Heel Jack, had a similar experience the following night. Electronica had clearly made its mark on the festival and it should be interesting to note just how many UK dance acts grab airplay, turn up on film soundtracks and follow the Prodigy into the US top 100 over the rest of the year. Dance will never dominate America as grunge did, but it should, none the less, carve a comfortable niche for itself.

The other buzz format involved mostly Texan bands that get called either y'alternative, "No Depression" music or insurgent country. For the most part they're young tattooed party animals using a mix of amplified rock and acoustic country instruments. While recent leftfield country rock acts like Son Volt and Wilco have had acres of good press, this new wave of musicians could easily turn that interest into big sales. Kings of the scene are Dallas-based the Old 97s who will be massive whatever pigeonhole they eventually get dropped into. Other y'alternative pacesetters include the mandolin-bashing Gourds, Whiskeytown, Jack Ingram, the Waco Brothers, Horseshoe and the wonderfully named Slobberbone.

Meanwhile the British pop-rock contingent, headed by Supergrass and Bis apparently drew decent crowds, but it was the punkesque female quartet Fluffy that prompted most gossip: the college kids thought they were sassy.

Outside of the y'alternative set, the gigs of the week were Matthew Sweet's late-nighter on Thursday and a Saturday night bill of Jennyanykinds, Archers of Loaf and the Smoking Popes, all of whom proved that American alternative rock is not bereft of good ideas or upbeat energy. In all I got to see almost 60 bands and the only time grunge rock featured was on the car radio. Somewhat significantly, by the end of the week Austin's alternative rock station was playing more and more of that new Electronica stuff.

South by Southwest can be contacted through its website at www.sxsw.com; to find out more details about this year's event www.Austin360.com has stacks of reviews